Dunrail project is finally 'Dunfor' | Black Hills Travel Blog

Dunrail project is finally 'Dunfor'

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The Dunrail has apparently reached the end of the line. After something like 15 years in an absurd limbo, actor Kevin Costner"s Rapid City-to-Deadwood passenger train project has finally jumped the tracks. Officials in Deadwood recently told the Northern Hills Regional Railroad Authority that the city is going ahead with development plans for land that had been set aside for the railroad. In other words, Deadwood isn"t waiting any more.

The only surprise is that they waited this long to pull the plug.

Originally called the Dunrail, the project was part of Costner"s $100 million Dunbar Resort first proposed in 1991. (Lt. John Dunbar, if you recall, was the name of Kevin Costner"s character in his 1990 movie, "Dances With Wolves.") A 1950s-style streamliner passenger train would pick tourists up at Rapid City Regional Airport and deliver them to a depot in Whitewood. There the passengers would board an old steam-powered train for a scenic trip through Whitewood Canyon to the casinos of Deadwood and the Dunbar Resort.

That was the original idea. It went through a number of changes over the years. I think the airport was dropped from the plan, then the Dunbar itself fell by the wayside. Dunrail Corp. -- folks in railroading circles began jokingly referring to it as the "Dunfor" -- became Black Hills Transportation Co. The line itself was to be named the Deadwood, Black Hills & Western Railroad. (That"s the logo above.)

Ralph Justen, a very nice fellow who had operated vintage excursion trains elsewhere, came aboard a couple of years ago. It looked like some form of the old Dunrail idea might actually materialize. He even talked about a network of passenger trains and buses running to Hot Spring, Wall and Belle Fourche.

But I think it was already too late. The company had a dubious claim for a right-of-way through Whitewood Canyon and no trackage rights on existing lines between Rapid City and Whitewood.

And financing was always just around the corner, but not quite there. (The delays became absurd, in my opinion, in late 2001 when Ralph"s predecessor told me that financing was in place; however their Wall Street investment bank was destroyed in the 9-11 terrorist attacks. They would have to start over.)

Black Hills Transportation couldn"t regain the credibility lost during the Dunrail years. There were just too many false starts and false hopes over the years. After 15 years, few people took the idea seriously.

In some ways, it"s a shame. Despite all its problems, the idea of an honest-to-God passenger train in the Black Hills that served as both transportation system and tourist attraction was an intriguing idea. Personally, I think it would have been a lot of fun to ride the train through Rapid City and on to Deadwood. And if the price was right, I might have been able to use the train for my daily commute.

Now the nation is taking a tentative look at passenger trains as a way to ease highway and skyway congestion, reduce greenhouse gases and cut fuel consumption. At a Barack Obama campaign appearance in Rapid City last spring, I was surprised to hear the future president talking about restoring passenger rail service in America. I didn"t realize that idea was on the table.

Maybe people like Kevin Costner and Ralph Justin were just ahead of their time. And maybe someday we"ll be taking the the 3:10 to Deadwood after all.

About the Author

Dan is an on-again, off-again Black Hills resident since 1978. The Aberdeen native hit the road after high school, building houses in Boulder, working oil rigs on Colorado's Western Slope, delivering cars in California. In Wyoming and Idaho, he worked as a newspaper journalist. But the Black Hills kept luring him back. For 18 years, he wrote for the Rapid City Journal. The job gave him a chance to see the Hills from atop Mount Rushmore and the bottom of the Homestake Mine. Whenever possible, Dan grabs his dog Kody and heads to the Hills. These days, he's perfecting the art of low-impact backpacking: hike two hours to a scenic spot, break out the wine, cook up the pasta, watch the sunset and fall asleep under the stars.

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